February’s “season of love,” marked by Valentine’s Day last Sunday, is a time of year many of us look forward to. For aging seniors whose spouse passed away during their elder years; however, this month can bring moments of grief over a “lost valentine.”
Bill felt grief, sorrow, numbness, shock, fear, guilt, anger, and other frightening emotions when his wife of 58 years, Elizabeth, died unexpectedly after a short illness. Months later, he found he still had trouble sleeping and not much of an appetite. He found that he couldn’t keep up with household chores without Elizabeth’s helping hands. The initial heartbreak of losing his life partner became a progressive depression as he realized his life would never be the same without her.
Missing a Spouse Felled by COVID-19
Also grappling with the realization of spending their golden years alone is the large segment of seniors whose spouse died during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 8 in 10 deaths have been among people 65 and older, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the experience of grief, sparking a “psychological shockwave,” writes Samoon Ahmad, MD, for Psychology Today. “Given that spousal bereavement is associated with excess risk of mortality, a well-documented phenomenon known as the ‘widowhood effect,’ the coming months may see notably higher fatality rates among senior populations despite declines in the number of new cases of COVID-19.”
The Emotional and Physical Effects of Grief
Many seniors who lose a spouse will find it difficult and upsetting to be alone after years of sharing a life with someone. They might have to manage tasks that their spouse took care of before and will probably have trouble making decisions alone. They can become concerned about their safety if living alone and fearful of what’s to come in the future. They can experience depression and anxiety, especially if the mourning period lasts for a long time and becomes unhealthy.
No matter the circumstances of death, grieving the loss of a spouse can take a toll on a senior’s health. The American Psychological Association reported that the first year of widowhood lead to increased reports of physical and mental problems in women, like depression and poor social functioning. Another study from the University of Gothenburg found that a widower who is still single a few years after his wife’s death has an increased chance of developing mental health disorders, and are more likely to use sleeping pills and antidepressants.
Grief can even actually be heartbreaking, according to a study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Heart attack risk within a day of a spouse’s death is 21 times higher than normal, and six times higher within the first week after death. Dr. Murray Mittleman said the stress and anxiety of losing someone close can trigger biological processes that damage the heart.
“All of this can cause a physiologic response with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and also can cause changes that makes blood a little bit more sticky. This can increase the risk of having a heart attack,” Mittleman said. “For at least a month the risk remains elevated and likely stays up even longer.”
Mittleman warned family members to be aware of the bereaved senior showing symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea. “Don’t assume it’s just stress and anxiety; it may be a heart attack and should be taken very seriously,” he said. “When an individual is grief-stricken, they often ignore their own needs and may not be as compliant with medication, may not take care of themselves as well.”
Leaning on Friends for Support
Isolation during the grieving period can lead to further depression and a longer recovery time. While it’s never good for the widow or widower to be alone, a recent study said it is better to be supported by friends than family members.
A team of researchers from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., studied a group of elderly women to investigate the connections between better physical health and the presence of a close confidant. They found that those with who received emotional support from relatives had poorer health than those who received support from friends. Study author Jamila Bookwala said this may be because friendships are discretionary, while family relationships are obligatory, and therefore less beneficial during times of stress.
“Family relationships are more likely to be characterized by ambivalence than are friendships,” Bookwala said. “Such ambivalence—feeling both close and bothered by the person—may occur even within confidant relationships with family members. This ambivalence may reduce the likelihood of health benefits from confiding in a family member.”
However, a close friendship is less likely to be emotionally complex and ambivalent, she said. “As a result, having a friend to confide in may be more conducive to protecting health in the face of stress, such as becoming widowed,” she said. “And this may explain why having a family member to confide in resulted in no protective health benefits for those whose spouse died, but having a friend to confide in did.”
Coping with Grief
It is important to remember that working through the grieving process is a natural and necessary part of experiencing loss. Seniors should first focus on taking care of themselves during their mourning period – eating right, exercising, taking medications, getting enough sleep – and should strive to stay in touch with caring and supportive friends.
It may help to join a grief support group or to seek professional help from a doctor, therapist, or counselor. Call your local hospice to ask what kind of bereavement services are available. A newer support program is GriefShare, offered by churches across the country. Reach out to an Amada Senior Care advisor who can direct you to resources for yourself or a loved one, including in-home care support or companion care. Call 866-752-1961 or click here to find a list of Amada offices.